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Why Do Bees Swarm?

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April is the height of honeybee swarm season, which students who passed by Aldrich Park and Humanities Hall on April 8 experienced firsthand. 

According to a study published by researchers in the journal One Earth, the number of bee species found worldwide has been steadily decreasing since the 1990s. UCI has taken steps to promote bee health by becoming a certified affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program. The affiliation was led by a group of UCI undergraduate students who created a campaign known as the “Save the Bees Campaign.” These students lead campus efforts for bee-related community service projects and spread awareness of the importance of bees to our environment. The efforts of UCI’s Save the Bees Campaign are aimed toward slowing down the loss of these insects, which are incredibly vital to the health of our local environment.

During this time of year, a greater variety of plants are in bloom, which makes for plentiful amounts of nectar. Consequently, honeybees are most active during this season since they use the greater supply of nectar and pollen to sustain their growing colonies, which consist of workers, drones and a queen.

Worker bees are sexually undeveloped females who work together to build the bee nest, raise the colony’s young and collect food. Drones, or male bees, live with the one purpose of mating with the queen. 

The queen honeybee is the only sexually developed female in the hive and is responsible for producing all of the hive’s offspring. One queen can lay more than 1 million eggs in her lifetime. The queen also produces a unique set of chemical pheromones, which are used for maintaining a system of communication within the beehive.

Honeybees swarm when the old colony becomes too crowded and consequently, resources become limited. The colony then must subdivide in order to stay alive. 

The process begins when workers feed the old queen. This allows her to lose weight to assist in the upcoming flight. Worker bees also build swarm cells, in which the old queen lays eggs. Once the eggs hatch, worker bees raise a new queen by feeding a specific larva — a type of immature bee — with large quantities of food.

Then, at least half of the bees in the colony will leave the hive, bringing the old queen with them. The queen releases chemical pheromones to keep the bees clustered around her. This group of bees will travel until they are far enough from the hive, where they will scout for a suitable place to build a new hive. Once a suitable location is discovered, the worker bees will begin the construction of a new hive.

Meanwhile, back in the old hive, the new queen will kill off any hatching larvae, as they pose a threat to her role. The remaining members of the hive will then start collecting pollen and food to rebuild the colony.

Honeybee swarms are usually safe, since bees do not have any offspring or food to protect. However, one should still exercise caution around these swarms, especially those with bee allergies. 

Vatsal Ananthula is a STEM Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. He can be reached at vananthu@uci.edu.